Where classic mystery novels were an important motif in Peter Swanson’s best-seller Eight Perfect Murders, horror movies and Hitchcockian thrillers provide the signposts in his latest, Every Vow You Break. Vintage-wearing, poetry-loving Abigail Baskin, who works in publishing, is a big fan of the genres, an enthusiasm that draws her to gazillionaire tech investor Bruce Lamb after he spots her looking very Audrey Hepburn at a Manhattan coffee shop.
On their first date, they bond over their mutual obsessions, and he proceeds to sweep her off her feet intensely and expensively, introducing her to fine dining, craft cocktails, and opera. Pouncing on Abigail as if she were a hot start-up, Bruce wastes no time in proposing to her. A rustic-chic Hudson Valley wedding ensues, and then it’s off to the honeymoon, arranged by the groom, on an island way off the coast of Maine at an imposing lodge, where rich tech guys go to unplug and get in touch with nature. Ah, romance.
The scarcity of other female guests and the confiscation of cell phones tip off an increasingly uneasy Abigail that this is not going to be an umbrella-drinks-at-the-pool, rose-petals-in-the bath kind of honeymoon. Not to mention the sudden, inexplicable appearance of the sexy guy she slept with at her bachelorette party in California, eating alone in the lodge’s restaurant. Is he stalking her, trying to blow up her nascent marriage? Actually, worse things could happen, and they do.
Though Every Vow You Break displays Swanson’s customary meticulous construction and clever seeding of (in this case) movie-related clues, it’s also an unabashed page-turner that I dare you not to read all in one go. But don’t tear through it so fast that you miss this helpful hint for future brides: when your groom puts a certain Police song on the wedding playlist, ditch that veil and run far, far away.
“Peace hadn’t suited them. They hadn’t made a success of it.” What the resurgent I.R.A. has made a success of in 2019 is keeping Belfast under constant threat of violence and running the city like the Mafia would. Few aspects of life there are unaffected by their activities, but history has shown that people can get used to anything. So it is for single mother Tessa Daly, who has a baby boy to raise and a job producing radio shows for the BBC. She keeps her head down and gets on with it in her small village, until one day she spots her adored younger sister, a free-spirited paramedic named Marian, in TV-news coverage of an I.R.A. robbery. She is stunned when Marian finally admits to her that she’s been involved in the I.R.A. for years but has recently stepped into a different role that she could use Tessa’s help with.
After her disbelief and fury are spent, Tessa agrees to act as a kind of informant, putting her own life and that of her child in danger. With nerves of steel and a gift for living a double, even triple life, Marian is wired for deception, but Tessa doesn’t have her sister’s training or dead-cool demeanor, so it’s hard to understand her decision. Is it ideology, love for Marian, or the desire for a life less ordinary that makes her do it?
Northern Spy shows a shift in perspective from American writer Flynn Berry, whose first novel, Under the Harrow, was an award-winning mystery about a woman obsessed with her sister’s murder. The theme of sisterhood persists, but in her third book, Berry broadens her range with the volatile Belfast setting and twisty espionage plot. Tautly told and unsentimental, Northern Spy keeps the pressure on as the Daly sisters improvise their way through a chilling minefield of loyalty and betrayal.
Ghost towns don’t give up their secrets easily, as young documentary filmmaker Alice Linstedt learns the hard way in The Lost Village. The Swedish mining town of Silvertjärn has a mysterious and sinister backstory, which Alice would love to crack. One day in 1959, its entire population disappeared from the face of the earth, except for a lone infant and a woman who’d been tied to a post and stoned to death. The police couldn’t explain what happened, and the villagers were never found. Since then, the town has been left exactly as it was, frozen in time. Alice’s connection to Silvertjärn is through her grandmother, who grew up there but moved away before the cataclysmic event. When Alice tracks down a woman whose mother was the sole, tiny survivor, the two agree to work together on a documentary with blockbuster potential.
The Lost Village goes back and forth in time from 1959 to the present, so that, as we follow the town’s inexorable trudge toward evil through letters from Alice’s relatives, we realize that it hasn’t been entirely eradicated. Alice, who has not fully thought through the logistical problems her project presents, is working with a small crew in a location with zero infrastructure and no way to communicate with the outside world. When whatever still lurks in Silvertjärn begins to wrap its tendrils around the filmmakers and awful things start to happen, they’re defenseless.
As with most ghost stories, the reader has to suspend a certain amount of disbelief to accept some of the nightmarish goings-on in The Lost Village, but Camilla Sten’s biggest strength lies in her ability to depict the eeriness of the abandoned streets and homes and how the trauma of the vanished townspeople resounds through the decades. She builds such a legitimately scary foundation that it’s worth overlooking an implausible plot point or two.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City